Digital media affords us so many chances to spread the word on causes, protest and campaign for so many things online. However, it is not yet clear whether all the Twitter hashtags, gripping Facebook updates and YouTube videos effectively and directly lead to real world changes that affect policy and bring forth long term change. The Kenyan situation is even more complex. It is very hard to measure the results of online activism. For instance, there are a number of high profile activists in the class of Boniface Mwangi. They agitate for social change with very captivating media and posts; they have a large following, especially from the Kenyan middle class. One glimpse at their social media profiles and it appears that they are powerful brands. However, are they just potential forces of change that engage a few middle class in online spaces?
There are varying descriptions of who the middle class in Kenya are. According to the Pew Research Centre, just 6% of Africans as a whole qualify as middle class, which it defines as those earning $10-$20 a day. The data doesn’t reveal exact numbers of Kenya’s middle class but it indicates that their number is considerably less than that of South Africa and the Nigerian middle class. EIU Canback, a consultancy (and sister-company of The Economist) indicates that “90% of Africans still fall below the threshold of $10 a day and the proportion in the $10-$20 middle class (excluding very atypical South Africa), rose from 4.4% to only 6.2% between 2004 and 2014; over the same decade, the proportion defined as “upper middle” ($20-$50 a day).” According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), “Kenya’s middle class includes anybody spending between Sh23, 670 and Sh199,999 monthly. The upper class (those who spend above Sh200,000 a month) stood at 3.6 per cent last year from one per cent in 2007.”
Why does this matter? Studies indicate that the higher income and more educated people are, the more they value democracy and the championing of various social justice causes. Therefore, many online campaigns run the risk of being restricted to a small number of upper to middle class elites. When I studied social media for my PhD, I discovered that the digital media space very much replicates the offline world that Kenyans live in. The same offline offline class divisions or parallels are replicated online. In the offline space, activists fighting for social change and human rights have their own cliques where they take on those in the government clique. Usually, the mostly middle class elites have vast networks with people drawn from the same class. They share each others messages and promote each others causes. Media personalities also have their own elite spaces where they share information on various causes. In a sense, many are also activists.
For the purpose of this piece, I will focus on the traditional hard line activists. Boniface is particularly unique because he is also a photojournalist. He is both a media personality and more conventional human rights activist. My question is, can these activists convince us that their fights for justice and social change are effective and cause long term change? Some like Boniface can argue that they have organised protests such as the occupy parliament where he and his team released pigs outside parliament to signify the MPs greed. They brought attention to the salary increment the parliamentarians were planning. So in this case, his online activism complemented the offline activism. Their protest brought attention to the controversial pay increase but did it lead to the lower salary the MPs eventually settled for? Or did it simply lead to more donor funding for his organisation?
I would argue that the lower salary the MPs settled for was largely based on wide consultation with the Salaries and Renumeration Commission and consultation with the president . It is not clear whether the chants of Boniface and team accompanied by the sight of dirty pigs outside parliament compelled the MPs to change their mind. In Kenya it is very clear that bottom up engagement from the community is only effective when complemented by top down government engagement. In the hierarchical country where class, titles and positions of power matter very greatly, for an activist venture to be successful, it also needs top down engagement from the government. Otherwise, it becomes slacktivism or what I prefer to label as “middle class noise.”
Slacktivism is the combination of the two words slacker and activist. Scholars describe the slactivists as those who display token displays of support for a cause such as joining or liking a Facebook page, wearing a ribbon, posting images or words indicating they support a particular cause. However, they do not make any more meaningful contributions to the cause, especially in the offline environment. An activist such as Boniface can argue that he has been engaged in many meaningful activities that make contributions to his cause to fight corruption offline by participating in public protests. However, it was rather telling when he was invited to a live interview by Jeff Koinange on the ‘Bench’ and he came face to face with one of the most controversial and outspoken MPs, Moses Kuria, a representative of the government that activists love to fight.
Boniface shocked me and countless others when he walked out of the interview. He said he didn’t want to speak with someone who has been accused of hate speech. He also accused the host of misleading him to commit to the interview without disclosing the identity of the other guest. Many Kenyans defended him when he walked out but there are also many like me who were amazed at how he would give up such an opportunity to confront the elite powers that he is always criticising and fighting. His walk out led to debates on social media and some of his supporters offered the following opinions:
Bonnie did the right thing. It raises questions as to whether Jeff is using his space to defeat justice by subtly introducing the loud mouth to deafen the clamour for accountability.”
I salute Boniface. Don’t argue with fools, they will drag you to their level and you will end up just like them. Kuria has nothing to offer Kenyans. He was a social media puppet of the regime until he became MP and is now much louder.”
Others were very critical of his walk out and had this to say:
Just like Raila who insults Uhuru and Ruto at funerals where there is no challenge, the American funded NGO activist Boniface Mwangi can’t face real challenge because he survives on lies, typical of Orange house hired journalists in Nation.”
This boy is a coward man living on borrowed times. How comes when called to tell Kenyans the truth of his lies he runs away. He should convince his donors to see value of their money. Kudos Jeff as a security expert, my advise is you put a burglary door with control system on the interview room next time you call him he cannot run away again.”
For someone who is in the business of taking on dangerous situations daily, and who has repeatedly launched vitriolic attacks on the ‘rotten Kenyan government’, in that moment he came across as a slactivist in the business of seeking publicity. One who picks and chooses what cause they will manage based on opportunism. It is very clear that it’s a very exciting time in which to promote or campaign for a cause, but it’s also a very dangerous time to get caught up in fads that do not result in meaningful change for the larger society. These campaigns also face the danger of being restricted to the small elite group of upper to middle class Kenyans and do not really impact or affect the sentiments of the majority of the country who occupy the lower classes. Meaningful change has to be inclusive for all groups, especially the majority lower income. Activists can argue that they pursue causes aimed at this very group, but then how is it that when you probe someone from this group, they are rarely well informed about the causes or feel any direct impact or change?
Cheeseman, N. (2015). Democracy in Africa: successes, failures, and the struggle for political reform (Vol. 9). Cambridge University Press.
Kabinthie, W. (2015). The economic muscle of Kenya’s middleclass overestimated. Retrieved from: http://www.kenyaforum.net/2015/11/17/the-economic-muscle-of-kenyas-middle-overestimated/
Kristofferson, K., White, K., & Peloza, J. (2014). The nature of slacktivism: How the social observability of an initial act of token support affects subsequent prosocial action. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(6), 1149-1166.
Occupy Parliament image retrieved from https://monicahnjeri.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/occupy-parliament/
The Economist. (2015, October). Africa’s middle class: Few and far between. The Economist.
Vidija, P. (2016, November). Boniface Mwangi walks out of live TV interview after Moses Kuria walks in. The Star.